I sit on the guesthouse roof, sipping hot chai as dawn’s midas fingers lace through the sky. A wash of warm gold slowly illuminates the landscape, soaking into the desert sand and painting the high walls of the fort. I have travelled through the night to reach Jaisalmer, and as the sun breaks over my first morning in the desert city I feel my head buzz with lack of sleep, my eyes drifting out of focus as I sip a tiny cup of chai. When the last star disappears in a pale amber sky I fall into bed and sleep the morning away.
In the light of day, Jaisalmer shimmers under a bowl of blue sky. The city rises golden from the desert floor, like a sandcastle carved from a dune by the hand of some ancient god. Havelis with intricately carved archways and balconies curve four stories high over streets of sun baked stone, busy with cows and motorbikes and people shouting to each other in greeting or in anger. Dark eyed women clutch babies with arms full of bangles, shrouded in glittering red and gold. A man in ragged trousers passes by pulling a cart laden with piles of fresh vegetables, and a child offers a piece of carrot to a tiny tethered goat wearing a knitted jumper.
The fort sits at the heart of everything, the city sprawling outwards from its walls. Inside lies a tangle of narrow winding streets, passageways and hidden arches; a place to get lost in. People live within this ancient maze, peering out from low doorways and chatting on front steps and making a living from the stalls and hole in the wall shops and restaurants that line the sandy walls. Coloured shawls hang from balcony railings, blessings of limes and green chills hang in doorways and blue painted shutters conceal dark rooms in which families cook and sleep and play with their children.
I wander through the shaded halls of the Jain temple, bare feet padding over cold stone floors. Carvings delicate as golden lace cover every surface, like honeycomb caves dug out of the rock. Outside, the call to prayer wails across the rooftops and the chill of a desert night creeps into the air. The sky fills with the swooping rush of wings, hundreds of birds diving and wheeling over the palace walls against the darkening sky, and the fort fills with the soft flickering light of candles, long shadows dancing across warm honey coloured walls.
More than anywhere else I have seen, this is the land of ancient storybook India. The India of a 1001 nights, an India of elephants and maharajas and princesses; of camel trains and silk traders and desert gypsies dancing in the light of an open flame. An India that retains its magic despite the tourists flooding its sandy streets, a place of history and imagination, where the stars glitter in a crystal sky above the same dunes where kings once walked.